Trial and Error: Pelosi’s Foolish Impeachment Ploy

The Senate as a Court of Impeachment for the Trial of President Andrew Johnson, illustration in Harper's Weekly, April 11, 1868, by Theodore R. Davis (public domain).
The Senate as a Court of Impeachment for the Trial of President Andrew Johnson, illustration in Harper’s Weekly, April 11, 1868, by Theodore R. Davis (public domain).

To the extent that the third presidential impeachment in US history is a “victory” — the public jury is still out on that question and likely to remain so for some time — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) seems determined to snatch defeat from its jaws.

In a press conference following the House’s vote to pass two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, Pelosi floated a plan to delay Trump’s trial in the US Senate by refusing to appoint the House’s “impeachment managers” until she considers the plan for conducting the trial to be “fair.”

CNBC’s Lauren Hirsch describes Pelosi’s ploy as a “game of chicken” with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel (R-KY). Per that metaphor,  Pelosi’s riding a tricycle and McConnell’s driving an 18-wheeler. He has no reason to swerve.

The Constitution assigns sole authority to impeach the president to the House, but sole authority to conduct the trial lies with the Senate.

The Senate does have rules for impeachment, including one that triggers the trial process “[w]hensoever the Senate shall receive notice from the House of Representatives that managers are appointed” to prosecute the case. But those rules can be changed by a simple majority vote, and McConnell’s party enjoys such a majority.

The House has passed the articles. Any further involvement on its part occurs at the pleasure of the Senate. If Pelosi declines to provide managers to prosecute the case, that doesn’t oblige McConnell to sit on his hands until she changes her mind.

Either way McConnell handles the threat, assuming Pelosi follows through on it, the Democrats lose.

If he decides to wait Pelosi out, it’s the Democrats who have formally accused the president of committing “high crimes and misdemeanors” requiring his removal from office but who are now delaying that potential removal.

If he decides to have the rules changed, those rules may preclude any House involvement in the trial at all. The new rules may let the Republican Senate majority choose “prosecutors” for the trial. In that case,  Pelosi will have no one to blame but herself.

Republicans have continually bemoaned the whole impeachment process as “partisan” and “politicized.” They’re right — but so far they’ve been at least as  guilty as the Democrats of making it that way, and arguably more so.

If Pelosi can bring herself to stop scheming, appoint the House’s impeachment trial managers (some Democrats propose, and I endorse,  independent congressman Justin Amash of Michigan as the leader of that team ), and let McConnell and Company make themselves look like defenders of presidential corruption, as they surely will,  Democrats just might come out ahead in terms of public opinion.

If not, she should be made honorary chair of Trump’s re-election campaign.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.